As we know by now, the Coronavirus is having a huge impact on the travel industry. Travelers are wary of heading out on their trips, and a handful of destinations have received a no travel ban. With that said, we reached out to the tour operators you work closely with to see how this is affecting their business, how it’s affecting current trips, as well as future travel, and what they’re doing to work with you.
“Let’s take a moment to first say, ‘thank you.’ Travel agents are this industry’s greatest spokespeople. They are on the front lines, answering the calls. Travel advisors are vital in this time—they are helping to educate clients and guide them through their travel purchases,” says Jeremy Brady, national sales manager, USA East for G Adventures.
Though many trips have been cancelled or postponed, there are still many places open for travel. It’s up to you, the travel advisor, to work with your clients and the tour operators to make sure travelers know they have many options.
“The Coronavirus is completely consuming our team’s time and energy at the moment,” says Bryan Lewis, president of Tenon Tours. “We are treating all departures on a rolling 30-day departure window and responding as quickly as possible to any changes to travel advisories, which may affect the destinations we serve. Since the news that Italy as a whole has been ‘locked down’ on Monday, we have cancelled all scheduled tours through April 15 and offered full refunds (less any non-refundable costs to us) or allowed travelers to reschedule any tours 30 days beyond that free of charge.”
CIE Tours also had tours to Italy that were impacted after the Level 3 warning was set in place. Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours, says, “When the CDC recently issued a Level 3 travel warning advising against non-essential travel to Italy, we set a cancellation process and policy of re-accommodation for Italy departures through April 15. We contacted impacted clients and their travel advisors directly to change plans.” She also noted that the company will be reviewing upcoming tours on a rolling basis and will make decisions based on the most current information available. They have a system in place to review the impact the virus has on destinations on a daily basis.
“Early on, we established an internal task team to meet daily and review virus updates in the U.S. and abroad, collecting input from customers, suppliers, and staff in the field to ensure up to date assessments,” adds Crabill. “We continually monitor advisements of the CDC, WHO, US Department of State, and other industry and international authorities to guide our decisions and ensure the safety and security of our guests, employees, and field partners regardless of location. We have our internal processes in order and are reaching externally to align with our clients and partners as well.”
This situation requires a coordinated and united effort between travelers, operators, agents, and suppliers to ensure that we are addressing the needs of all parties involved.
—Bryan Lewis, President, Tenon Tours
G Adventures is also working with local offices to stay informed. Brady says, “G’s second world head quarters is in Boston, but we’re supported by 27 other global operations offices across the globe, giving us access around-the-clock to in-location statuses and in-country news on the topic of the virus. These offices also offer us great support for travelers while in region—it’s peace of mind knowing we have these local teams in region for agents and their clients.”
“I think there’s something to be said about the fact that, although many countries now have 1,000+ cases, there have been no new travel advisories issued by the CDC or U.S. State Dept,” says Lewis. “This is in stark contrast to Italy being issued a Level 2 Warning with fewer than 100 cases just weeks ago. While the situation is indeed quite serious in Italy at the moment, and they are taking the most aggressive measures to combat it, this shows that the perception and reality of threat is changing before our eyes. As more and more information surfaces, and as the virus continues to spread throughout the world, the issue of ‘staying here or going there,’ regardless of where that might be, has little difference.”
For scheduled tours where a local site or activity can be changed, CIE Tours is making the itinerary adjustments as needed, says Crabill.
“For example, with the recent local government decision to cancel the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day festival and parade in the spirit of avoiding mass gatherings larger than 5,000 people, our team designed an alternative experience for those tours, a smaller, exclusive St. Patrick celebration, hosting our guests at a famous historic castle where they will enjoy a day of private celebration with the castle owners, including food, music, and entertainment just for CIE Tours client.
“We want to assure clients that for any tour changes that clients need to make within impacted bookings, we will work with them to move dates, change destinations, or find solutions that work for them,” she adds. “We are not waiting for impacted clients to call us; we are reaching out proactively to everyone where changes occur. We are updating our national account partnerships regularly, and the status of current tours can always be found on partner sites.”
G Adventures founderBruce Poon Tip wants travelers to remember that travel as a whole is still safe, and cancelling trips has a greater impact on local communities. He recommends that travelers continue to travel, even if that means changing their destination. “We still firmly believe that travel is incredibly safe. As pioneers of community tourism, we believe that travel can be the greatest form of wealth distribution the world has seen, as much as we have a commitment to you, we also have a commitment to the local communities that tourism benefits,” says Poon Tip. “This situation has the potential to be damaging for them. We hope that you, our travelers, will keep traveling, even if that means changing your destination, or postponing your plans.”
We are noticing that guests seem to be less nervous about committing to travel farther out.
—Jon Grutzner, President of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold
Crabill adds that the core destinations of Ireland and Britain that CIE Tours travels to are open for business, as is Iceland, and they’re all operating as scheduled.
G Adventures is also recommending that advisors schedule clients to other destinations free from the Coronavirus impact, rather than cancelling the trip altogether. Brady says, “Luckily at G Adventures, we are blessed to have a diversified product all over the globe. We recommend shifting your clients to different destinations if possible. Places like Africa and South America could be great alternatives, though of course we are monitoring the entire situation constantly. Additionally, we’ve posted a very useful COVID-19 FAQ document on our site and also cited a helpful document that outlines a Myth Buster on Coronavirus published by the World Health Organization.”
Lewis adds though, that the company is not currently offering free cancellations or changes to destinations, which do not have any travel alerts or warnings. They have, however, modified their policy to offer the same full monetary refund or will waive change fees (less non-refundable costs) for any trip to any destination, which may be affected by a Level 3 warning by the CDC in the future.
“If they choose to reschedule their tour for more than 90 days in the future, we will even refund 65 percent of their payments so they fall back within standard terms and conditions,” adds Lewis. “Outside of that, those with Cancel-For-Any-Reason (CFAR) coverage may opt to cancel any trip at any time and receive any non-refundable penalties as travel certificates/credit for future travel.”
Future Travel Impacts
Jon Grutzner, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, says, “We are noticing that guests seem to be less nervous about committing to travel farther out. We released our 2021 Preview Collection earlier than ever before this year because of the large volume of demand from our guests—offering them the opportunity to get the best prices and travel with peace of mind.”
However, Lewis adds that for Tenon Tours, “After celebrating back-to-back record months in January and February, sales for the first 10 days of March are down 20 percent, but I fear that it will get worse before it gets better. We are being cautiously optimistic but have re-forecasted our figures to allow for a 50 percent reduction in new sales for the next three months.”
And for CIE Tours, they remain hopeful as well. “While bookings have slowed as the market is figuring out how this situation will progress, new business is coming in as directed for travel in the fall and into 2021,” adds Crabill. “People are booking, but they want to understand their options and how they are protected in case something changes. But importantly, we are still seeing that travelers want to look ahead and beyond the current crisis. That is where the rebound will come from.”
Working with Travel Advisors
“This situation requires a coordinated and united effort between travelers, operators, agents, and suppliers to ensure that we are addressing the needs of all parties involved,” says Lewis. “While our customers’ safety is our priority, we must be careful to consider the impact on the agencies and agents, and suppliers overseas, and not allow anyone to assume financial responsibility unnecessarily.”
He adds that, “In regards to working with both internal and external travel advisors, we are having open and honest conversations to establish the best solution for all involved. This includes adhering to our revised policy and using only the CDC, U.S. State Department, and WHO advisories to guide us, rather than mainstream news outlets and personal opinions. It is ultimately up to the individual traveler as to whether they wish to travel, but we are trying to present options based on reality versus perception as portrayed by the media.”
Crabill reminds the travel community that we’ve seen crises in travel before. “CIE Tours has been in this business for almost nine decades, and with our advisors, we have seen many ups and downs, peaks, and valleys. When we emerge from a tough time, we grow, and we expect that to be the case again. Meantime, this industry is resilient; our advisors are true professionals and will rebound when travelers figure out what works for them,” she says.
We want to assure clients that for any tour changes that clients need to make within impacted bookings, we will work with them to move dates, change destinations, or find solutions that work for them.
— Elizabeth Crabill, CEO, CIE Tours
G Adventures is supporting travel advisors with 24/7 Call Centers, Online Chat options, online booking engines, FAQ resources, and through its 12 GPSs across the U.S. and Latin America. “They are the agents’ greatest source of information and are there as a sidekick to support them. We’re also helping agents rebook their clients with confidence knowing about our Lifetime Deposit policy,” says Brady.
How to Handle Clients Who Want to Cancel
“It is always our job as travel professionals to help put clients at ease, however that may shake out—changing destinations, postponing trips, canceling when necessary. This is a resilient market and advisors should always share with clients that they have relationships with their suppliers, who work with on-the-ground experts. Remind your clients that there are many places in the world that have not been impacted, but the key right now is to travel smartly, and be armed with as much information as possible as they make and/or amend travel plans.,” says Brady.
Lewis adds that travelers want to travel, “Fortunately, we are finding our travelers to be amazingly resilient on a broad scale. Aside from the effect that it is having on trips scheduled to depart in the next 90 days, the vast majority of travelers are just waiting it out and hope to travel as planned,” says Lewis. “In fact, until the situation escalated in Italy last week, most of our Italy travelers were simply changing their itineraries to avoid the northern part of the country, but were just as excited to discover the rest.”
Crabill adds that, “We encourage travel advisors to be proactive with their clients, sharing what they know from trusted organizations like the CDC, public health authorities, and tour operator partners like CIE Tours who know the destinations in detail. We have more than 45 staff on the ground in Ireland and Britain, providing us with information and ready to support our travelers on their tour.
“Ultimately, as travel professionals, we all must offer our best counsel and advice based on fact and integrity—not panic—while acknowledging the fluidity of the situation. While the traveler will make their own decisions in the end, we can, and should, provide facts to help inform. The well-being of the guest is always the first priority, and that is an important message for travel advisors to communicate. Advisors can trust that CIE Tours shares that principle.”
Grutzner adds that this situation is constantly changing, and it’s the travel industry’s job to stay informed. “Our advice has evolved as the current environment is very fluid. We have provided a landing page on our website with the most updated policies, recommendations and links to any relevant CDC warnings. Now more than ever we recommend travel insurance,” he says.
“We respect guests’ decisions and want them to feel safe and comfortable when traveling on our incredible trips. We strongly encourage them to carefully read and understand their options before they make a decision as it relates to cancelling or postponing,” says Grutzner. “We are offering very attractive options for guests to postpone their travel and travel later in the year. We have opened up sales, and many of our trips for 2021, and we are seeing a very healthy number of our guests taking advantage of 2021 trips at 2020 prices.”
For more updates on travel during the Coronavirus outbreak, click here. Don’t miss, “Coronavirus’ Impact on Your Peers’ Bookings” and “Novel Coronavirues Travel Questions—What to Tell Wary Travelers.”